For years, American intelligence services have financed various initiatives, sometimes openly and sometimes covertly, to shape consensus at home and abroad. These initiatives had various degrees of effectiveness—who knows how much Civil Rights photographer and FBI informant Ernest Withers actually compromised Martin Luther King’s later anti-poverty work?—but they were merely the 1.0 version of the fascinating, ever-evolving psyop that has characterized the response to Trump’s blustery, off-the-cuff rhetoric. Trump, by virtue of maintaining at least some skepticism about foreign wars, the Chinese surveillance state, the power of the big technology firms like Amazon and Twitter that detest him, has given others an opening to create arguments that they’re Good, Actually. Trump is the 2.0 release, now no longer in beta, of the “Cootie Theory” we internalized in our childhoods: whatever he tweets or talks about, and he does a lot of both, is now verboten, foreclosed forever to anyone even vaguely aligned with the party apparatus that opposes him.
This represents evolution by devolution in the way news consumers— particularly professional-class news consumers who have lots of time to scroll timelines on their phones yet no time for rhetorical hairsplitting—make up their minds. After all, making up one’s mind has never been easy, and “think for yourself” is a commonplace expression that may as well read “think for yourself, like everyone else.” Quickly grasping what the members of your team or squad value, and then using these heuristics to reach snap judgments, has worked since grade school and will continue to work throughout the rest of your life. I use “work” here in the sense that it allows you to do the work of reaching conclusions without wasted time, not in the sense that this “work” is otherwise productive in ways that lead to a net increase in your ability to accommodate contradictions while reasoning your way through arguments. The art kids don’t like the jocks; the Patriots fans don’t like the Steelers fans; the Flemish dislike the Walloons; and so on ad infinitum.